Sean Hayes brings his soulful core to Belly Up Aspen
Special to The Aspen Times
Try and pigeonhole the music of Sean Hayes, and you are likely to come up with a fistful of soft, white feathers. The man is a musical MacGyver, constantly pulling new sounds and styles out of the worn threads of his ubiquitous, coolly tilted fedora.
Just when you think you’ve pegged his sound as the second coming of the calm, viscerally evocative Van Morrison while swooning to the lovey rhythm of “When We Fall In,” the singer-songwriter wallops your synapses with a driving, high-energy Morphinesque anthem such as the song “Gunnin’,” both from the incredible album “Run Wolves Run,” released in 2010.
The genre-dodging isn’t necessarily by design. When pressed, the alternately grizzly bearded, droopy V-necked, clean-shaven tuxedoed Hayes usually leans toward calling himself a folk singer. But devote an ear and a few minutes to just a smattering of his prodigious catalog, and one quickly realizes that Hayes has stylistic range beyond the best of the folkies. He is the snap and crackle of Joe Jackson, the soulful heart of Bill Withers, the creative punk of Elvis Costello. Aspen fave Brett Dennon wishes he could sustain a vibrato warble with such sweet gravel as his elder Northern Cali musical brethren.
While the freedom to pursue his creative vision without genre-induced boundaries is a clear theme in conversation, the stylistic variations are the result of modern practicality as much as any other factor, Hayes said. Home-studio-recording technology has allowed him to experiment with beats and instrumentations that previously would have been cost-prohibitive. So has the transient nature of good musicians.
“My band varies from record to record. It depends on the song, time and who is in your life at the time. People will move on. You react. Sometimes you fly a musician in when you have to. I figured out a long time ago to just do whatever you can to get the music out and not let little things like money stand in the way,” he explained recently from a hotel somewhere on the road while taking a short break to write from the gruel of “chasing the (previous tourmates) Beats Antique bus across a bleak expanse of monoculture in a two-man van.”
While he prefers ample solitude and time to write, Hayes challenges himself to remain creative on the road.
“It’s hard to work on the road, being around people 24 hours a day. My process is to seclude myself for long stretches of time to make myself comfortable enough to get into things. But I still push myself here and there when we have a day off. There is so much power in these little boxes that we carry around (smartphones). You can break it out and have this mini-studio going. Sometimes I try to remind myself, “… Remember, you’re a songwriter. You can try to write something out here,” the soft-spoken singer chuckled. “You’ve got to push yourself that way.”
Hayes’ personal journey informs his sound to a great degree. Born in New York City, raised along Tobacco Road in Greensboro, North Carolina, and officially a San Franciscan after 20 years there, Hayes’ songs are infused with the grit and soul of each of his landings. On his records, urban beats and world rhythm can be found trading hooks with stand-up bass and electrified, Dixie-drenched acoustic guitar that would make Willie Nelson break out in a wide grin —not that he needs anything more to smile about.
Playing Belly Up will mark the first Aspen appearance for the veteran musician, who will strip down his big-band sound to his soulful core — just a guy and a guitar.
“It’s a band in a box!” Hayes said. “Normally I am with a band. On this tour I am bringing along some abilities to make some drum machines and beats happen. That’s kind of new to me, triggering old-school beats and some new ones.”
The result should thrill fans of simple, sincere, lyrically driven music with a danceable edge.
Playing solo with digital accompaniment allows for plenty of space and freedom for the songs to resonate in new ways, Hayes said.
“I love playing with a band, so I miss that, too, when I am on a solo tour. In this day and age of being able to play around with technology, there is another element of being able to change up the rhythm section on a whim. It makes things really simple — just drumbeats and things. I have been having fun making my own beats and having DJs and producers create beats to wrap around the skeleton of my song. There is a lot of freedom in that. But the core of what I do is just a guy and a guitar. It makes for an intimate show.”
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